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Wednesday, April 23, 2014         

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Model of confidence

A childhood brain injury doesn't keep teenager Aliyah Taimatuia from her dream of modeling

By Nadine Kam

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Like many adolescents who've suddenly discovered fashion, Aliyah Taimatuia recently announced to her mother that she wants to be a model when she grows up.

Aside from the usual concerns about height, weight and having a salable look, her mom knew she needed help and called on Mary Wilson.

Wilson is neither agent nor talent scout, but Aliyah's case manager. Aliyah was 2 years old when, in a warehouse accident in 2000, she fell four stories, leaving her with permanent brain injuries that required her to learn to walk, talk and eat again, all the basic functions of life. The accident left Aliyah, now 13, with hemiparesis, or weakness on the left side of her body. She's learned to work around it by using one hand to dress and groom herself.

Wilson, a registered nurse, has worked with Aliyah as a consultant for attorney Ian Mattoch's Continuing Commitment program. The program was established in 1998 after Mattoch worked with a client who suffered traumatic brain injury in an auto accident and he realized typical, immediate care wasn't enough.

In some cases, when injuries are catastrophic, the law firm commits its resources to extend legal services, nurse case management and advocacy. Just recently the program provided assistance to help oversee renovations of an ADA bathroom for Aliyah.

Since modeling is a new world for Wilson, her first step was to find a modeling agency willing to work with Aliyah's special needs.

"It's not typical work for a case manager, but I'm grateful to assist in fulfilling her dream and watching her grow as a young woman into adulthood," Wilson said.

At the Kathy Muller Agency, she found instructor Tania de Jesus, who was willing to work one-on-one in teaching Aliyah the basics of skin and hair care, poise and grace, lessons the girl has taken to heart.

Although Wilson has been working with Aliyah for a decade, she is surprised by how much the youngster has blossomed after taking just one round of classes.

"I didn't think it would be as good an outcome as it has been," Wilson said. "Aliyah was feeling frustrated at school. Kids were picking on her and making fun of her disabilities.

"Now her teachers are reporting that she's very confident now that she's a model and she feels more respected."

Many of Aliyah's peer problems started with the transition between elementary and middle school at Highlands Intermediate, when differences are cataloged and used by bullies as a source of torment. It didn't help that due to brain injuries that affected glandular functions, Aliyah also entered puberty early and had been undergoing hormone treatment since age 6 to slow the process.

Since gaining confidence from her modeling classes, Aliyah, who is good-natured and soft-spoken, has been able to speak out about her feelings to her tormentors, and said the same boys who teased her are now her friends.

Aliyah said that looking at magazines cemented her desire to model. She defines her style as preppie and said she enjoys going shopping with her mom and choosing her outfits together. She would love to model trendy, youthful clothing from companies like Jeans Warehouse, Baby Phat and Wet Seal, but draws the line at underwear.

She's cut soda from her diet, turning to water to avoid sugar, and while de Jesus has warned her against french fries, she hasn't been able to give them up yet. But when out for fast food, she'll opt for something like a grilled chicken whole-wheat pita instead of a burger.

Her next step in modeling school would be to participate in a regular group class with other girls, said Wilson, whose aim is to see Aliyah graduate from high school.

"We're looking at seeing her function as independently as possible. It's difficult, with brain injuries, to predict whether that's possible.

"That the injury happened at age 2, in some ways that's good," Wilson said. "Her brain has been rewired so everything's done on her right side."

Even so, when stressed or nervous, Aliyah's muscles tighten, causing spasms that jerk her left arm upward, but Wilson said that de Jesus was able to show Aliyah how to overcome this reaction. What is modeling, after all, but smoke and mirrors and transformations that create something beautiful out of imperfect realities?

"Tania's not a therapist, but she instinctively knew how to show Aliyah how to pose, while pulling down her arm with her right hand, in a way that looks natural," Wilson said.

Wilson works with many other brain-injured clientele of different ages and abilities who all struggle with figuring out how to fit in to society.

"I have one young woman in her 30s whose biggest problem is feeling everyone's looking at her. She doesn't want to be in a program, but she needs to be in a program."

So, Wilson set her up with a job with the nonprofit Brain Injury Association of Hawaii that helps people with brain injuries. The work gives her a sense of belonging and contributing to the community, and staffers are able to oversee her well-being while treating her like a "normal" person.

Prior to that, the woman had complained to Wilson, "I feel my life isn't over. I'm not stupid, but people treat me like I'm stupid."

Wilson said, "The brain controls everything in the body. There are so many things that can be impacted by brain injuries, depending on the severity of the injury and the location of the injury, that each case is unique, and sometimes the effects aren't evident for years."

She added, "I'm so excited to see the progress (Aliyah's) made and how happy she was on the first day she started studying with Tania. Afterward she threw her arms around me and said, 'Thank you, Auntie Mary.' I don't get that too often."






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